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The Arts

Natty Threads

Emily Li Mandri looks to continue expanding her start-up fashion label

Atalie Justice-Brown
Emily Li Mandri silk-screens her natty paint line herself in her studio.

By Rebecca Fishbein | Posted 7/28/2010

Designer/creator Emily Li Mandri is one of the more recent entrants into Baltimore's flowering indie-arts community. She started her clothing label Natty Paint in the spring of 2009, and in just over a year since, she's launched a 2010 summer line, had a booth at Artscape, and has even clothed local musician Dan Deacon.

The New Jersey native first got the idea to create her own T-shirt line during the spring of her senior year at Johns Hopkins University. "I'd always been interested in fashion," Li Mandri says in a phone interview. "I started out painting on clothing by hand, and decided to try silk-screening images on T-shirts instead."

She bought a silk-screening kit and ink from a Station North art supply store, transferring her designs onto plain T-shirts that she sold at a booth at Hopkins' Spring Fair. The shirts were popular and Li Mandri made enough money to purchase more supplies, leading her to consider expanding. "I thought since I was able to make money one weekend, maybe I could support myself doing this after graduation," Li Mandri says.

Thus, Natty Paint, named for the ubiquitous Baltimore-associated National Bohemian beer, was born.

Last September, Li Mandri acquired two interns and a grad student from Hopkins to help her get the company off the ground. She began putting out custom T-shirts for events along with her original, Bauhaus- and Art Nouveau-inspired, silk-screened designs. She also began to buy up vintage clothing and alter it under the Natty Paint label, altering them and adding her own designs and patterns. The label was eventually picked up by a few local boutiques, including Doubledutch in Hampden.

Co-owner Lesley Jennings says Doubledutch was initially attracted to Natty Paint because Li Mandri is a local designer and because the label uses recycled fabrics, two things the store wanted to support. "We've been carrying Natty Paint for about three months now," Jennings says. "It's one of our more popular lines."

Li Mandri wanted to delve even deeper into the city's arts community and make Natty Paint not only a local clothing company, but an established part of Baltimore's image. She reached out to the Charm City Craft Mafia, a local group of artisans that help promote each others' work, but says she did not hear back from them. Eventually, she contacted Wham City staple Deacon in hopes that he would spread the word about her super-small label by wearing some of her designs at his concerts. He agreed, and Li Mandri started dressing other indie bands, local and otherwise, including Animal Collective, Beach House, Delorean, and Neon Indian. "I thought it would be good to get someone in the Baltimore scene to wear the [Natty Paint] shirts," Li Mandri says. "I started noticing that not only did the musicians like what they were wearing, but the fans were into the clothes, and they started buying Natty Paint shirts too. I dressed bands that I liked, and that I thought would be interested in the types of designs and garments I was producing because they matched their type of music."

Eventually, the brand took off. Li Mandri collaborated with Gutter magazine photographer J.M. Giordano and a graphic design intern from MICA to put together a lookbook for Natty Paint's spring and summer collection, a compilation of spangled spandex dresses, paint-splattered T-shirts, striped leggings, and geometric rompers, among other things, using Li Mandri's friends for models. Natty Paint also launched a new web site (nattypaint.com) in May, featuring an online store where shoppers can purchase T-shirts, revamped vintage clothing, and the label's new In-House line, which is comprised entirely of Li Mandri's unique patterns and designs. In addition to the online store, Natty Paint clothes are still sold at Doubledutch as well as at New York's AuH20 boutique and the Smash! boutique in Washington, D.C.

Despite this relatively quick growth, Li Mandri voices concern that the company will have difficulty expanding further. "The money I'm making is what I sell back from Natty Paint," Li Mandri says, adding that all her profits go toward purchasing more materials, in addition to her own living expenses. "I do this full-time. I design my shirts, manufacture them, and put them out myself, and I'm moving forward on whatever I make out of that. When I first started, my parents helped pay for my rent and my groceries, but at this point I live off of Natty Paint.

"There are stores in [Los Angeles], San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston that are interested in carrying the label, but I need to figure out how to come up with inventory to send out there, but not lose money while doing it," Li Mandri says. She's currently designing her fall line and updating the company's web site, in addition to contacting more boutiques.

She is confident, however, that locals will continue to support the affordable label, whose price range runs similar to that of big-name retail company Urban Outfitters. Natty Paint is also one of only a few independent local lines featuring ready-to-wear vintage and designs, especially since Hampden's Shine Collective closed its retail store last month.

"Most of my sales are happening in Baltimore," she says. "People like seeing something fashion-forward here and want to support me."

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